Gambling with Jail Beds

Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorenson is gambling with the public’s money. No, he’s not doubling down at the blackjack table at the Three Rivers Casino in Florence. He’s betting that no one will be hurt by violent offenders who are released early from the Lane County jail. He and Commissioners Rob Handy and Bill Fleenor have refused to fund an additional 84 jail beds, despite pleas from law enforcement officials.

Last week, U.S. Representative Peter Defazio begged the Lane County Commissioners to restore funding to the jail, using the additional money he helped secure from the federal government. Both of Oregon’s U.S. Senators reiterated Defazio’s request and emphasized their belief that public safety must be given first priority.

But Sorenson and others have preferred to wait just a little while longer, hoping the state revenue projections will make the job of budgeting just a little bit easier. It may get a little easier, but it won’t get a lot easier. And it may get a lot worse — quickly. If another violent criminal is released prematurely and then does something unspeakable, we’ll all say we should have known.

But we do know. There’s just nothing we can do about it. Not so with Sorenson, Handy and Fleenor. They do know, and they can do.

Government benefits from an informed populace. Oregon has drafted legislation to require restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, because “the public has a right to know.” A habit of high-calorie lunches can be hazardous to one’s health. Isn’t releasing inmates because there’s no place to put them also hazardous? Shouldn’t that information be just as easy for the public to get?

Is a Big Mac really more dangerous than a repeat offender with a drinking problem who hit his girlfriend and then tore the phone off the wall when she tried to call for help?

Anyone with a computer can stay informed about our jail’s capacity-based releases. Go to http://e-airs.org/eAirsInternet/Releases.aspx to get the number of inmates released in the past 24 hours. Scroll through the categories, but focus on the capacity-based releases. You can bookmark it and check anytime you want. But that’s not good enough. After all, fast food restaurants have insisted for years that calorie-counts were available on their Web sites to those who were willing to work approximately this hard.

Using the calorie-count logic, the state should require a Lotto-style billboard with a changeable number to tell everybody how many capacity-based releases have been issued in the past 24 hours. I called Captain Doug Hooley, Correction Division Commander for Lane County Sheriff’s Department and offered that suggestion. He paused for a moment, then admitted, “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that one. It’s been brought up informally — in the interest of keeping the public informed.”

We need a benefactor to fund such a project. And I know just the guy.

Kevin Mannix has famously campaigned for more prisons to keep Oregonians safer, but jails are more important than prisons. Studies have shown that crime is deterred best by immediate and predictable consequences. If you’re caught committing a crime today, jail is where you go tonight. Unless it’s a busy weekend in Lane County. Some criminals get booked and released so quickly, the corrections department could give efficiency lessons to the DMV. Police have a name for this. They call it “catch and release.”

If a billboard can’t be donated, how about this? Lane County Health Department has an electronic reader board on its building a few blocks east of the jail on 6th Avenue. It’s used for public service announcements. Why not share that sign with the corrections department? A pattern of prematurely releasing violent criminals is as much a matter of public health as reminding people about Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Even simpler, the Sheriff’s Department could add this information to their automated phone message each day. “To hear how many inmates were released yesterday because of capacity issues at the jail, press 9.”

News organizations will do their job when a violent crime is committed by a person who should have been kept in jail, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime, The Register-Guard and local television newscasts should report the number of capacity-based releases issued each day, the same way they report the day’s winning lottery numbers.

Every day that Sorenson and the other Lane County Commissioners refuse to fund the jail beds is a gamble.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) served on Lane County’s grand jury in the summer of 2005. You can read his blog entries from that time at www.dksez.com/category/grandjury. He writes a column for The Register-Guard each Friday.